Racism in police forces and an "uneven application of justice" must be addressed as part of the public inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, victims' families told federal ministers at a closed-door consultation in Toronto.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said concerns raised at Friday's session included the quality of the investigation, the charges that are laid, the pleas that are arranged, the sentences that are handed down and the time that is ultimately served. "We, unfortunately, are hearing stories about the uneven application of justice if the victim is indigenous," she told reporters at a downtown hotel.
Friday's consultation was the 12th of 18 sessions across the country, with the final meeting scheduled for Ottawa on Feb. 15. It came just days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said a culture change is needed in institutions and agencies across Canada, including Parliament and the RCMP, to ensure indigenous people are treated equitably. In December, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson acknowledged there are unwanted racists in his force.
"I think we know there are systemic problems," Dr. Bennett said at a press conference alongside Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. "The 'few bad apples' scenario is not an excuse … There should be zero tolerance for people who treat people differently or where justice is not served for people of certain ethnic backgrounds."
While the RCMP is Canada's only federal police service, Dr. Bennett and Ms. Raybould said they are confident that the national inquiry will be able to examine and improve policing across various agencies, whether provincial or municipal.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould said she and federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale recently had "productive discussions" with their provincial and territorial counterparts, who "expressed a desire and willingness to be involved" in the inquiry process. Dr. Bennett also said the issue of policing came up at a meeting of big-city mayors Thursday. "They're very interested in figuring out what they can do to better serve the First Nations, Inuit and Métis citizens in their communities," she said.
Gladys Radek, an indigenous advocate whose niece, Tamara Chipman, vanished in 2005 in B.C., was at Friday's session and said it was "heartbreaking" to hear multiple families describe their negative experiences with law enforcement. "Specifically, they were going after the police," she said.
The government has been hearing directly from victims' loved ones, as well as from indigenous organizations, front-line social workers and provincial and territorial representatives as it formulates a plan for the public inquiry. The Liberals say the input will help shape the probe, including as it relates to the scope, leadership and duration.
Dr. Bennett and Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the government will deliberate on the feedback before launching the inquiry by the summer. "This commission will have a budget and will be arms-length to do the work itself," Dr. Bennett said.
The Liberals campaigned last fall on a pledge to "immediately" launch a public probe at a cost of $40-million over two years, but the government has since said the figure and timeline were placeholders.
The former Conservative government dismissed calls for a national probe, with some members narrowing the discussion to domestic violence. But a Globe and Mail investigation last year highlighted that family violence is not the whole story. It found that indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely than other Canadian women to die at the hands of a serial killer. The Liberals have said the revelation underscores the need for a national inquiry.